With the excellent films Coraline, ParaNorman, and now The Boxtrolls, the stop-motion animation studio Laika has firmly established itself as the smartest and therefore best purveyor of animated entertainment working today. It certainly helps their case that Pixar has become obsessed with sequels, that Pixar's parent company Disney still holds a fetish for singing princesses, and that DreamWorks Animation mostly produces mediocrities.
A much larger factor in Laika's preeminence, however, is the consistency of the three features that they have produced over the last five years. All three films have promoted a visually compelling house style and a commendably weird house tone while still maintaining their own individual identities. Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and adapted from the novel Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, The Boxtrolls moves beyond the paranormal fixations of its Laika predecessors, effortlessly creating a unique fantasy world that is equal parts tradition and irreverence.
The setting for The Boxtrolls is the pre-industrial metropolis of Cheesebridge, a seaside city whose streets spiral around the sides and top of a drooping mountain. Cheesebridge is designed as an "olde world" European city of vague descent, with dollops of steampunk added for flavor. As the film opens, Cheesebridge is overrun by Boxtrolls, a species of frittering and jabbering underground creatures who wear boxes over their torsos and pilfer from the humans at night.
When one Boxtroll absconds with a human baby, a sneering, self-styled exterminator named Archibald Snatcher offers to rid Cheesebridge of the creatures in exchange for an upgrade in his social status. The Boxtrolls, who turn out to be crafty builders rather than mere burglars, take the baby into their underground lair, and raise him as one of their own.
Fast-forward a decade, and the baby has become a box-clad young man named Eggs, a precocious child who has grown up unaware of his human nature, self-identifying as a Boxtroll even though he lacks their green skin and inherent ability to retract into their cardboard shell. When Eggs is finally allowed to go scavenging, he sees and is seen by a human for the first time, which unwittingly allows Snatcher's extermination efforts to bear fruit.
One of the great strengths of The Boxtrolls is its ability to invest every character with personality and humanity, even a literal cartoon villain and his gang of doofy henchmen. Snatcher is clearly an evil slimeball gargoyle, but his motives and obsessions, his need to transcend himself and be accepted into a higher class of society, are pathetic and weak and all-too-human. On a similar note, the wry, self-aware running commentary from two of Snatcher's thugs is to be expected by this point, but a neat wrinkle is their investigation into the "duality of good and evil" — they can't tell if they're good guys or the bad guys.
Even more impressive is that, unlike a lot of the characterizations in Disney/Pixar productions, that personality is not directly seeped from the already-established personalities of its voice actors. Ben Kingsley voices Snatcher, and the henchmen are voiced by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade (with Tracy Morgan as a cackling nihilist named Mr. Gristle). They're all brilliant, aiding the animators in creating rich characters that fit into the overall framework.
All this and I haven't even mentioned my two favorite characters — Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris), the town scion and leader of the "White Hat" upper class, and his punk-as-fuck young daughter Winnie. Portley-Rind is the most cheese-obsessed buffoon in a town filled with them, addicted to it like a drug, and more interested in creating a gigantic wheel of brie than in building a new children's hospital.
Even more fun is Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning), a worthy successor to Coraline in Laika's hall of complex, no-bullshit child heroines. Winnie becomes an ally to Eggs as he attempts to save his Boxtroll brethren and foil Snatcher's evil plans, but she has a stronger interest in justice that has nothing to do with helping Eggs realize his destiny. Her red-faced, foot-stamping impatience with the fools of Cheesebridge is not a fault; it's indicative of an immense strength of character. Winnie is not bossy — she has executive leadership skills.